Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Mussels, flamingos and sheer desperation

Last Sunday was John's birthday. Why he has to have a birthday three days after Christmas I don't know - wouldn't you think that his parents could have stopped in mid - er - conception and spared him all those years of not getting proper presents ("We've bought you an Extra Large Christmas Pressie this year, dear"), not to mention spared me the vexed question of how to celebrate this year's Big One? Well, yes, they could have, but they didn't. Mean, eh?

We don't usually bother very much with birthdays, it has to be said - best not to notice the years rolling by - but this was one of those milestone birthdays that you really can't ignore. So a short sharp surprise trip was in order. In typical Libran fashion I ummed and aaahed for several weeks trying to decide where to go, but in the end three things made the decision for me: mussels, flamingos and sheer desperation. So it was off to the Aude coast and the villages of Bages and Peyriac sur Mer, two of the most atmospheric (and photogenic) places I know.

Yes, this is the same Languedoc coast that was developed into resortland in the 1960s when the government decided that the working classes should be able to afford to go to the beach too - though not, heaven forfend, to the Côte d'Azur where they went themselves. So they sprayed the beaches to get rid of the mosquitos (as they still do every year, though it doesn't work), created a number of purpose-built resorts for the mass market ... and the mass market duly came, and still comes, in ever-increasing droves. Don't get me wrong, it's not as gross as it sounds - we even go there ourselves (!) ... some of the beaches are more reminiscent of Australia than France, many of the resorts have been decently laid out with lots of space and greenery, and it is more egalitarian and, I think, more welcoming than the celebrity sands of the Côte d'Azur. And here and there you can still find pockets that remain much as they have been for centuries, like the snappily titled Parc Naturel Régional de la Narbonnaise en Méditerranée, of which Bages and Peyriac form a part.

Both villages are right on the edge of saltwater lagoons, which means that the light is just dreamy, and the bird life fantastic.

I poddled round with my camera, getting seriously stuck in the mud at one point, although it was worth it to get shots like these:

And of course we saw these:

and ate these:

What more could you want? Well, actually, some decent weather would have been nice: we drove there through blizzards and howling gales which were the subject of an Alerte Orange (severe weather warning), and although the snow melted fast the skies remained resolutely grey and menacing until Monday, when they opened and promptly dropped several centimetres of rain in a few hours. When we got home, we discovered that it had been warm and sunny here in Ariège all the time ... so much for the bloody Med.

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Happy Winter Solstice!

Forget December 25th or January 1st: today is the real winter fest, and the one we at Grillou like to celebrate. Nothing new in that: the Winter Solstice has been a time of great celebration since the era of our earliest ancestors. And think about it: no calendars, no clocks ... but our ancient ancestors always knew precisely when the earth begins its journey back to the light, back to warmth, growth and spring ...

So today has been a time to feel the turning, to let go of what needs to be left behind, and to dream into being what we want from the next year. It has been the most glorious, warm, sunny day; we've filled the house with greenery from our woodland, and will celebrate tonight, the longest night, with a Solstice dinner, a room full of candles and a bottle of Montirius Vacqueyras (and hang the exchange rate!).

Two things to mark this Solstice: first, the lovely evening light in this photo (I took it from the bathroom window just over an hour before writing this) of the sun going down over Mont Valier:

And secondly, these words of Albert Camus, sent to me today by a friend as a Solstice greeting:
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an
invincible summer.

Blessed be!

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

There's no such thing as a free lunch

In comparative studies of different countries' healthcare, France consistently comes out near, and often at, at the top. Waiting times are almost non-existent, technical expertise is at a very high level and the system is largely based around choice: the patient's choice of which doctor or specialist to see, and the doctor's choice of treatment, largely unconstrained by cost factors. Need an operation? The chances are you'll be offered it next week. Need an injection? No problem; the nurse will come to your home and do it, this afternoon if you like. Need an unusual (and expensive) drug? That's fine too - no postcode prescribing here. As a result the vast majority of French people pronounce themselves to be very happy with their healthcare, and boy, do they use it! It's fully expected here that you'll visit your medecin traitant (GP) for even the slightest symptom - sore throat, cold, headache, indigestion, sleepless night, itch in a strange place ... and over 94% of GP visits here result in a drug prescription. Indeed they're generally considered ineffective unless they do so; the average French household has cupboards full of half used or even unused medications. The fact that I haven't seen a doctor for some twenty years (and have no desire to do so for at least another twenty) provokes at first hilarity, and then - when they realise I'm serious - out and out horror amongst French acquaintances and friends. 

The upside of all this is that the French can expect to live longer, and more healthily, than most people who live elsewhere. The downside? Well, cost, of course. Unlike the UK, the French health service is not free at the point of delivery; it has always been partly contributory. All working people, and their employers, pay hefty cotisations (contributions) towards their health care. The state then covers a certain percentage (ranging from 15% to 100%) depending on the type of treatment, with  the balance being paid directly by the individual either out of their own pocket or through a 'top-up' complementary health insurance policy. But the French healthcare system is still one of the most expensive in the world to run, with a current deficit of over 4 billion euros. (It would be more expensive still if doctors were paid anything like their counterparts in the UK, who now receive salaries of which the French can only dream ...). And I'm beginning to see why.

If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might remember that earlier this year John had a close encounter with the health system here in the form of a stay in a Toulouse hospital (cost to the Social Security system / our top-up insurers: a mere 1196 euros a day - nearly fifteen thousand euros in all. And that's without surgery ...). All has been well since then, but a couple of months ago it was suggested he go back for an 'MOT', which in his case comprised 10 hours in the Hôpital de Jour being subjected to no less than 23 different tests on every conceivable part of his bodily functioning, arteries, kidneys etc, with breakfast, lunch and goûter thrown in alongside sessions with several consultant doctors. Cost to Social Security / top-up: 940 euros. It's the kind of thing that belongs firmly in BUPA territory in the UK, but perfectly normal here. On the day before this marathon, he'd had to present himself to yet another department for the fitting of a Holter ambulant blood pressure monitor (don't ask); while he was there, the doctor announced that they were 'just going to do one test that day instead of the next' and that 'we've ordered lunch for you'. Test was duly done, and dusted, all within 30 minutes, lunch was duly declined (if you ever have the misfortune to stay at CHU Rangueil you'll know why).

One of the administrative strengths of the French health system - and heaven knows there aren't many: it's as cumbersome as a cart horse - is that you always know exactly how much each element of your care is costing, because you get a bill for it. We were, shall I say, a little surprised then when the bill arrived for the Holter day and it was - wait for it - 940 euros ... the full day rate. Hmm. I thought about this one, and smelt a scam. Not a scam on us, because 80% of the bill was covered by Social Security, and the remaining 20% by our top-up. But a scam by the hospital to - how can I put this? - maximise its income. By shifting one short test a day forward, and providing lunch, the hospital reckoned it had justified charging the 940 euros day rate instead of the appropriate costs for one consultation and one test - 75.60 euros, to be precise.

So I decided to call it. I wrote to the Director of the hospital, suggesting (with the utmost politesse of course) that an "unfortunate error must have occurred". I copied the letter to our local Social Security office, to the consultant-in-chief of the day hospital, to John's medecin traitant. "Bof!" said my neighbour. "Why bother? It's normal. Sécu have paid it already [they had]. In any case, you'll never win". But do you know what? I did. No letter, no acknowledgement even. Just a revised bill. In the great overspend that is the French health service, it's not even a molecule in the ocean. But I feel better for it.

You see, it's true. There really is no such thing as a free lunch. 

Sunday, 14 December 2008

So who said Brussels is boring?

We've just spent a few days in Brussels. Don't ask me why; I really haven't a clue what possessed us to go there other than a travel deal so good that even the scary state of our sterling income couldn't entice me to turn it down and the fact that, bizarrely, I've never been there. The day before we set off, I was mournfully scanning the weather forecast for central Belgium and seriously contemplating doing a no-show (although ironically, it was in the event scarcely colder than the Arctic conditions that we're currently experiencing here ...).

Brussels doesn't come with an especially good press, having several times been voted 'the most boring city in Europe', and being popularly regarded as the grey haunt of grey Eurocrats. "You're going where???" shrieked friends, regarding me with that pitious expression reserved for those on the edge of a minor breakdown. But do you know what? Brussels is neither grey, nor boring, and we loved it. Here's why:

It's one of the most multi-cultural, and multi-lingual, cities I've ever been to; you can walk down the street and be surrounded by every European (and a good few non-European) language you can think of. For a language-holic like me that makes it hugely exciting. We had a memorable dinner one night at a south Italian trattoria where I could practise my appalling Italian as that was the lingua franca, and where for a good while we were the only non-Italians in the place; the next night we decamped to the Turkish area near the botanical gardens to eat pide and kefta every bit as good as I've eaten in Mugla.

It has some fabulous Art Nouveau architecture, like the Musée des Instruments de Musique:

not to mention some superb galleries, like the Musée des Beaux Arts, where we ogled at Brueghel, puzzled at Magritte and discovered that Rubens didn't just paint buxom nudes.

It's great for street wandering, with lots of different quarters with distinctive looks and personalities, and it's small enough to explore on foot. The Sunday morning market by the Gare du Midi must be one of the biggest I've ever seen: part eye-popping vegetable market, part souk, we haggled for spices and ate Moroccan pancakes. And later that day, at the flea market at Place du Jeu de Balle, I found things I've been looking for for centuries, but had to leave them behind because they wouldn't fit in my rucksack ...

It's real. A bit gritty round the edges; a mish mash of old, new, beautiful, ordinary and (occasionally) jaw-droppingly ugly. Which means you have to work a bit harder, perhaps, than you do in Paris, or Rome. Which makes it all the more interesting.

It has very decent bars and cafés. Cool ones, right-on environment friendly ones, trendy ones, traditional ones, brown ones ... two of our favourites were Au Vieux Bon Temps, which feels as though it hasn't changed since the forties (and probably nor has its clientele ...), and this one, Le Cirio, a bit more well known but with this gorgeous interior:

And (of course) it has beer. Nine hundred different ones, apparently, from over 200 breweries. And no, we didn't try them all, although we made a more than valiant attempt. I'm not usually an out-and-out beer lover, but these are different: more like tasting wine. A couple of 9% Trappist beers before dinner is enough to make you very happy indeed.

And it does a mean Christmas market. I'm not a Christmas person, at all - in fact I'm a bit of a bah humbug type - but I'm a sucker for pretty lights, ice rinks, mulled wine and all the trimmings, so long as it's not twee, which this wasn't. The sound and light show at the Grand Place was startling; the view from the top of the Big Wheel over the ice rink and market was straight out of Brueghel. On Sunday afternoon it felt as though the whole of Belgium was there, and we played sardines.

I'm glad we went when we did because it's not beyond the realms of possibility that Belgium as we know it may not survive indefinitely. Tensions between the Flemish and Walloon (French speaking) regions run high with Flemish politicians still looking for independence, and if the results of a poll of French speakers published in Le Point last week are to be believed, a majority of Walloons now wanting to join France. It's a fascinating but complicated story of the relationship between language and culture, which traces its roots back to the 1830s when the Netherlands ruled; the Walloons took to the streets in their own version of revolution, following which a kingdom was set up with French as its official language. It was only in the 1960s, when the heavy industries that had given Wallonia its financial power were in decline but French was still the predominant language of the bourgeoisie, that the country was officially divided into discrete language areas (still current) and Flanders was given more say in the country's politics. Brussels is an aberration: the only officially bi-lingual area in the country, it sits in Dutch speaking Flanders, though it's much more French than Dutch.

From what I can gather from Belgian commentators and blogs, much of the resentment between the two communities is based on stereotyping. The Flemish are frightened of the alleged Walloon contempt for the Dutch; they also fear that their growing prosperity will be dragged down by the poorer economic performance - and the perceived laziness - of the Walloons. "We have had enough of paying for people who are just sucking at the welfare tit. The Flemish have a work ethic, too many Walloons just expect a free ride," was a recent, and sadly typical, comment by a Flemish woman. It feels a bit as if the tension between the two communities is the tension between the Anglo Saxon way and the French way: do you live to work (Anglo Saxon), or do you work to live (French)? Big generalisations, yes. But that's how it is. There are endless stories of an every day language apartheid: a school in Flanders that won't take pupils if they speak French at home; a tennis club that turns away anyone heard to be speaking French. There are no Belgium-wide political parties: only Flemish, French and German (because there's a little known German-speaking community too) ones. A French gite owner once told me, from experience, that the biggest mistake I could make if I got an enquiry from a Flemish guest would be to speak to them in French rather than English - which would almost certainly lose the booking.

I suspect there won't be a happy ending to this one, any more than there is to most relationship breakdowns. Acrimonious divorce looks a bit more likely than mediation.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Before and after

Writing is a funny thing: very often a piece has a life of its own and ends up being completely different from the one you (thought you) intended to write in the first place. Take my previous post, for example. I actually set out with the idea of showing a few before and after pictures of The Project So Far, just to reassure you that we do in fact manage to find the odd thing to do to fill our days ... and I ended up talking about Slow Design and quoting Rilke. Ah well. There's process for you.

And here's a bit of The Project So Far:

Part of the salon-as-we-inherited-it, complete with its latex-covered, oil painted walls (I kid you not. But that's nothing. I have a friend whose kitchen walls were covered in lino) ...

There's a very good reason why John is dressed up in a North Norfolk District Council bin bag. I just can't quite recall now what it is ...

What you don't see here, of course, is the way the plaster fell off the wall every time we tried to paint it; or the horrific mess I made (mainly of myself) when I lightened the wooden staircase from its previous ghastly red colour to light oak. Nor do you get any hint of the seagrass trauma that was to come) ...

But finally, our salon has now settled into this, complete with wood burning stove that arrived last week, just too late for the really cold weather but just in time to catch the euro-sterling rate at its lowest:

Okay, so it's not always that tidy. Moving swiftly on ... next door (through the opening on the right above), my study/therapy room, previously a bedroom that didn't really have any walls at all, just lengths of silky material stretched on battens over render (when we took it down it was so full of dust that I sneezed for a month ...):

And back the other way, the kitchen, with John trying unsuccessfully to unstick his hand from a cupboard ...

... under its previous régime. Admittedly you don't get the full effect of twenty-plus years of cooking gunk ingrained into the oak units, nor can you see the breathtaking variety of paint effects, but you can see it was pink. Very pink. Very very pink. After several centuries (no, that's not an exaggeration) of stripping, sanding, more sanding, sealing and seven - yes, seven coats of paint, it now looks like this:

And yes, thank you, I know it would have been easier to strip it out and replace it with an IKEA kitchen. Don't think we didn't contemplate it. But oak is oak, and green is green. And as we all know, it's not easy being green.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Learning to love the questions

I had an email from a old friend in England the other day. "So what do you actually find to do all day?" she asked, amongst other things. 

You know what they say about an over-hasty click on the send button. Well, I didn't, although I did walk around with my mouth hanging open for longer than was elegant, or probably necessary. Mind you we used to get similar comments quite frequently during the restaurant years: you'd be amazed how many people thought that we enjoyed endless lazy mornings and afternoons drinking coffee or walking to the beach, before pottering into the kitchen at - oh, six o'clock maybe, to throw together a four course dinner for 12. (If you really want to know, we started work before 8am, and finished after midnight. And in over eight years we only made it to the beach three times ...). And, more seriously and even more sadly, we lost not a few friends during that period because, I think, some people found it hard to accept that we couldn't close up on a Saturday night just because they'd invited us for dinner, or spend much time with them if they dropped in to see us or even booked one of our guest rooms for the weekend. But I digress. 
I admit it may look, from a distance, as though we've become fully paid up members of the leisured classes. Things are going slowly. Sometimes it's frustrating; sometimes it's depressing. But we're at the point now where we've lived here all four seasons round, and so have a much better idea what the house wants and needs from us as well as what we want and need from it; if we'd steamed ahead with a fully fledged renovation a year ago we would, quite frankly, have got it wrong. What we've embarked on, unwittingly but appropriately, is the process of Slow Design. Slow Design (and yes, it really does exist: Google it ...) is about pulling in the reins and breathing deeply; it's about listening, talking to and loving the project even - especially - before it starts to take shape; about taking time to do things thoughtfully, responsibly, holistically, ethically, well, and most importantly in a way that will allow us (and you, should you come here) to derive pleasure from them. You could say that it's a bit like the Eightfold Path of Buddhism. And just as in person centred therapy, the process is as important as the product - actually, more than. 

When I was training to be a therapist, my tutor at the University of East Anglia, Brian Thorne, introduced me to Rainer Maria Rilke and in particular to Letters To A Young Poet, one of the most extraordinary books I've ever read. It affected me deeply then, and still does. Amongst the many paragraphs that come right out and hit me in the gut is this one: 

Be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart, and to learn to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and books written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the key is this, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, without hardly noticing, you will live along some distant day into the answers.

Do you feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Les Anglais disent "bye bye".

Fortunately, nobody's asked me yet if we're 'living the dream' here in France. Clearly we move in the wrong circles, which is probably just as well, because both the phrase and the whole concept provoke in me the same kind of response that I have to tripe, or to chalk scraping on a blackboard, or to badly cooked aubergines. It conjures up an endless round of hot sunny days sitting on the terrace by the pool sipping wine, while drifting around in long flowing skirts and every so often popping a couple of hundred yards along the road to pick up just-baked baguettes and call in at the thriving and impossibly picturesque local café for coffee or pastis. Quite apart from the point that a life like that would have me swiftly joining the other 10 million plus French people supposedly reliant on anti-depressants, the facts are that I possess neither a pool nor a long flowing skirt; most local cafés here are more impossible than picturesque and are probably in their death throes anyway; and the boulangerie is 3km down (and up, and then down, and then up ...) the road. Oh, and - are you ready for this? - it rains here too.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because a couple of days ago our regional paper, La Depêche du Midi, ran a prominent article entitled 'Les Anglais disent bye-bye'. Because of the fall in the value of sterling, the increase in the cost of living and the effects of the financial crisis, the British are leaving France in droves: "For them, it's the end of a dream, the story of an attempt at integration messed up by the crisis". Apparently, one British immigrant in five goes back within the first three years - and it seems that not only is this figure is on the rise, but now, because of la crise, they are not being replaced by newcomers (to the great chagrin of the immobiliers, who have to some large degree traded off the British for the last few years).

La Depêche goes on to point out though that la crise is only partly responsible. With a touch of understated glee, it describes how the British can no longer afford to buy in the south-west, where property prices have risen sharply over recent years (although it stops - just - short of suggesting that they might now be hoist on their own petard). And, it says, "The British are also wheeler-dealers. They bought their houses when prices were low and expect to sell them at a profit, so that they can go off and buy cheaply somewhere else - in Croatia, for example".  There are other issues too: homesickness, isolation, boredom, difficulties of integration, disappointment with the winter climate ... in other words, the souring of the dream. 

We don't 'do', and can't be doing with, expat circles, so I don't really know how much this phenomenon comes close to home. There are other British people living in Ariège, and yes, we're even friends with some of them, but largely (and pretty much exclusively over in our 'bit' of the department) we're just people who've come to live an ordinary life, not a dream, in France, warts and all. We didn't come to be part of an expat community or to get away from an England that's 'going to the dogs' as have, I'm told, a number of Daily Heil reading settlers; nor are we about to go 'home' (sic) to get away from a country that is, now we've taken our Blytonian glasses off, even more unpalatable than the one we left in the first place. The only sizeable British community in Ariège is around Mirepoix: a very pretty and beautifully preserved small bastide town over on the far eastern border which has seen an extraordinary influx over the last few years - try and get a café table after the Monday market and you'll find almost every one jealously occupied by groups of British expats with golf club voices (sits back and waits for flak ...), plus there are English book groups, discussion groups, art classes and so on. But that's very much the exception here, thank heavens. 

So in spite of la crise and the weakness of sterling and the high cost of living; in spite of the fact that we're considerably poorer (in money terms, that is) than we were when we first came here; in spite of the fact that there are aspects of French life that are just as bizarre and frustrating as are parts of British life; in spite of the fact that so many things - like renovation! - take so long to happen; in spite of the fact that it rains; in spite of the fact that my Saturday night entertainment runs to sitting here writing this blog; even in spite of the fact that the Parti Socialiste has well and truly (and possibly terminally) shot itself in the foot and therefore that we'll have Sarko, or his look-alike, in power for the foreseeable future: in spite of all of that, we're going nowhere. These Anglais are definitely not saying bye bye.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

It's snowing!

Well, well, well. It's snowing. Now this is a Grillou I haven't seen before.

I love snow. It turns me into a big kid with a new toy. It makes me want go out and kick around in it and make snowwomen and throw snowballs. I wish I were a skier, but if you've been reading this blog for a while you'll know all about my legendary skiing prowess (I do want to get some raquettes - snowshoes - this year though). But when we woke up this morning and looked out of the window and saw everything covered in snow - proper snow, I mean, not that horrible wet stuff that disappears as soon as you puff at it - all I really wanted to do was go out and walk in it. I made a valiant attempt to go on working, I really did. But given that today's delectation was the scraping of thirty year old cork tiles from the walls of our downstairs loo, my willpower very soon simply gave up on me. I mean, what can you do when your garden looks like this:

So out we went to walk a bit of the GR78, La Voie du Piémont Pyrénéen, which runs across country just a few minutes walk away from Grillou and is part of the Chemin de St Jacques de Compostelle. While not one of the four major Chemins, it's a superb walk of, in total, around 450 kilometres (140 in Ariège) that runs through the Corbières, the Couserans, the Comminges and the Bigorre regions to join up with the Arles to Oloron-Ste Marie route at St Jean Pied de Port in the Basque country. Phew. (That was for the sentence, not the walk). It's a classic Slow Walk, and definitely destined, I think, to be as much of a guest favourite as it is one of ours. One day, perhaps, we'll do the whole thing instead of piecemeal bits.
The light was fantastic at times:

After descending from Grillou into the valley, the chemin climbs gradually back up to around 500 metres and the views open out to the south and west, giving some lovely views (well, usually!) over the high peaks and some nearby hamlets:

The strange thing is that having walked 3 kilometres or so along the chemin, Grillou is less than a kilometre away (over to the left on the picture above) ... but you can't see it. We've walked the paths and woods all around the house now, and come to the conclusion that Grillou must be one of the only houses that nobody can see, from anywhere ...
On the way back there's a great view of Rimont, our village, in the distance, with the Pyrénées behind (almost hidden in the snowy mist):

More snow tomorrow. Yippee!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Er ... who am I anyway?

Unlike others, we've encountered few of the frustrations with France's legendary bureaucracy that seem to be experienced by so many other EU immigrants. Reading any of the hundreds of 'how to do it' guides that have proliferated since the heady Amanda Lamb era, you'd be forgiven for thinking that only with (amongst a tonne of other things) eighteen copies of six generations' birth, marriage and death certificates would you be allowed to darken the country's doors at all, let alone open a bank account, buy a house, re-register your car, join the health system, pay taxes and social contributions, start a business or association, and so on and so on and so on. No, in the last eighteen months we've done all of those things and more, and for us it's been relatively plain sailing; indeed every fonctionnaire in the book has only been too willing to take money from us ... Apart from one thing, that is. My name.

Now I admit that the whole situation around my name is probably not normal. My legal name - that of my passport, driving licence and every other bit of identification I carry - is not the name that I was born with. So what, you might say. But I don't mean just my surname; I mean both my first name and my surname. Some years ago I changed both by statutory declaration: Kalba is part of a spiritual name given to me nearly 25 years ago by the spiritual master Osho (it means 'heart' in Arabic, although I am also reliably informed that with a slight difference in pronunciation it can also mean 'bitch'. Hmm. You choose ...); Meadows I took some time later just because I liked it, and because I wanted a name that was mine and not given to me by anyone else. The UK, bless its little cotton socks, took all this on board without a murmur. I only wish I could say the same about La Belle France.

The problem is that name changing just doesn't happen here, probably because you have to have the permission of the President to do it. So there's no precedent for a bizarre foreigner who turns up with a birth certificate in one name and a passport in another, with nothing to link the two other than the rather ordinary looking, battered piece of paper which is the only proof I have that I have Statutorily Declared. No wax seal, no Royal thumb print, no Prime Minister's blood ... nothing. Not even the inevitable dossier, without which no French person may exist. I've lost count of the number of French fonctionnaires who have gone into a major crise at the sight - or rather lack - of my documents. So far, though heaven knows how and not without endless explanation on my part - I've managed to avoid receiving any vital pieces of paper in my birth name. Today, though, a whole new saga has emerged.

Because UK and French tax years run differently and so we only had to declare for a part year (while being able to claim the allowances for a full one), we've managed to stay below the income threshold for paying any tax this year. This is great, because it lets us claim the French government's special heating allowance for non tax payers who have oil central heating. A year ago I might have felt a bit guilty about doing this; actually, at the moment I don't, because our income - which is still all in sterling until we finish the renovation and was not huge to begin with - has actually decreased by over 35% in 12 months as a result of the exchange rate and interest rate cuts, and I don't mind admitting that times are A Bit Tough. So today, I thought, I'd fill out the claim form. So far so easy, until I got to the bit where you have to provide your 'avis d'imposition' (tax statement) and your oil bill. "These two documents must obligatorily be in identical names!" screamed the form. Well yeeeesss ..... but no.

I ordered and paid for the oil, but - and I only noticed this this morning - our avis d'imposition is in John's name. Not mine. (Here, partners are taxed as a household, not as individuals). No problem, I thought, I'll just give them a ring and get it put right, friendly helpful tax office that they are. No, they are. Really. In spite of the bizarre conversation we had for over half an hour today. I have, it appears, committed a Sin. I (being the one who does all things business and financial) completed, and put my name first on, the tax declaration, thus pronouncing myself to be the 'chef de famille' - the head of household. Nothing wrong there, I thought. It seems, though, that there is - I, being a woman living with a man, can simply not be head of household, and therefore I should have put my name second. And moreover, putting my name first in such an erroneous and upstart-ish fashion means that I have lost the right this year for my name to appear on the tax statement at all, which is why it isn't there. If, apparently, I had put it second, thus demonstrating that I knew my place in the world, it could have appeared as a secondary name on the avis. Yes, I know you don't believe this story, but it's true. Honestly. My tax conseiller couldn't quite grasp why I was laughing uncontrollably (disbelief? hysteria?): for her, this was the Natural Order Of Things, and when I finally picked myself up off the floor and explained to her that I'd always been the main player at my tax office in the UK she couldn't grasp that either.

So now I have to go back to my oil supplier (who is - how can I put this - a couple of centimes short of a euro when it comes to admin) and ask for a revised bill in John's name so that I can get my heating allowance ... . I think I've said this before, but you really couldn't make it up, could you?

Monday, 10 November 2008

Spot the Anglo Saxon

Sometimes, particularly in the supermarket, or sitting on a café terrace, we indulge in a little game playing, our favourite being the politically incorrect but entertaining 'Spot the Brit'. I remember exactly when we got hooked into this one: we were at Rhodes airport, sitting out a seven hour flight delay in the café overlooking the main departure concourse. There were lines and lines of people waiting in check-in queues for flights to the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy, Russia ... but we found that without even looking at the destination boards we could tell just by looking at the passengers which ones were British. It's hard to quantify how exactly, but I think it's something to do with a particular way we Brits tend to have of carrying ourselves, of being in ourselves: slightly apologetic, with a vague air of discomfort about being in the world.

Having said that, here in France I often get taken for a Belgian, apparently something to do with my French accent (which was honed in Switzerland many years ago - complicated or what?). Not exactly a compliment, given that the Belgians are the butt of ethnic jokes by the French in the same way as the Irish are in England. I recently shared a lift (as in thing that goes up and down) with two people, one of whom was acting a little strangely to say the least with the effect that we all ended up after ten minutes back precisely where we had started. When the offending person finally disembarked, the other guy yelled after her "T'es Belge ou quoi?" (Are you Belgian or what?). Then he looked at me and said, rather sheepishly "Ben, vous n'êtes pas Belge, madame ...?" (Er - you're not Belgian, are you?). I laughed, said I wasn't and made some innocuous comment about our 'adventure'. In pure John Cleese style he covered his face with his hands, bent over double and said "Merde - vous êtes Belge - je suis desolé ..." (Shit - you are Belgian - I'm really sorry ...").

There is, however, one sure fire way of spotting the Anglo Saxon in France, or indeed in any other southern European country. The Anglo Saxon is the one that gets their kit off whenever the sun shines, even if it is November. I guess that to those of us who've grown up in a country in which grey skies are the order of most days and strappy tee shirt days can be counted on the fingers of one hand, it's perfectly natural to want to 'profit from', as the French say, the warm sunny days that we get throughout the year. So, for example, I've spent the last three beautifully sunny afternoons working in the garden in shorts'n'strappy. For me, c'est normale; it was a good 20 degrees, maybe 10 degrees more in the sun - a pretty nice English summer's day. For our neighbours down in the valley though, who are the same ages as us and pretty alternative in other ways, it's verging on insanity, as is our habit of eating outside several times a week even in winter.

One of the great things about living in the far south of France is that there's real heat in the sun even in the depths of winter, but go to the market or a fête or foire on a sunny day and it's easy to spot the blow-ins; we're the ones in tee shirts, while everyone else is huddled in jumpers and jackets and ponchos and hats. There are exceptions, of course: a sunny restaurant terrace on a Sunday lunchtime seems to offer some kind of implicit permission to break the normal rules, and I've even seen people (and yes, they were French) in bikinis on the Languedoc beaches in January. But on the whole, as soon as summer's over - and that means September - arms and legs are put away for another eight months.

Integration's all well and good, but there are some ways in which I'll always be the token Brit.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A good day

It's over. And could it be that the whole point of George Bush was to show America, and the world, just how bad it could get without integrity, and responsibility, and relationship?

From today we can all sleep a little more soundly in our beds. And we can breathe, and we can hope again.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Produce tyranny

What is it with Metéo Chance - sorry, Metéo France? The forecast for today showed us being gradually 'squeezed' between two mega-depressions until all hell/rain/giant flying lizards broke loose this afternoon. So given that we still had one enormous pile of wood from our beheaded ash tree to saw up and stash before the weather finally broke, we were out there at the crack of dawn. (And guess who got to operate the chainsaw today? I'll give you a clue. There are two of us, and it wasn't me. No, I was the one sweating with the nineteenth century wood saw ...). By lunchtime it was so incredibly hot and sunny that I was forced to strip right down to - no, too much information. And it stayed that way, until it got dark.

On the other hand, and I never thought I'd say this, but Thank Goddess It's (Nearly) Winter. Don't get me wrong: I'm not about to go and live in an inner city high-rise, but there comes a point when the sight of naked fruit tree branches, wilting courgette plants and the odd patch of bare earth in the potager starts to fill me with relief simply because I don't have to deal with any more produce. The walnuts are shelled (and my hands are finally losing their Gauloise-addict look); the plums and figs and cherries are bottled, compôted, jammed and chutneyed for the winter; and we've got onions and potiron and potimarron in store, and broad beans and French beans in the freezer, to see us through the hungry gap. John is, as I write, juicing the last of our strange gnome-like apples, and our pitiful (my fault - I forgot to remove the rotting fruit from around the trees last year and so they lost most of this year's blossoms to rot) harvest of quinces is staring pointedly at me from the rack daring me to get on and turn them into membrillo (oh God. Another two hours at the jam pan ...). I've got a box full of aubergines, and I've just picked what will surely be the last peppers of the year:

Phew. It's a tyranny. this produce business. Bring on the Big Macs ...

Monday, 27 October 2008

A what-the-hell weekend in Luchon

What do you do when the clocks are about to change (and you know you'll go into mournful mode for several months), Metéo France are for once confidently predicting three clear and sunny days, and you've finally finished renovating the kitchen and the salon that you started a year ago? You make an instananeous what-the-hell decision to go away for the weekend, of course.

It took us just half an hour on Friday morning from the what-the-hell moment to actually driving away down the track with boots, binos and books (and not a lot else) stashed in an ungainly fashion in the back of the car. Even now, two years on, the idea of a weekend away still holds a rare thrill: during the resto years weekends went by in a blur of bookings, bed changes and fourteen hour days behind the stoves. (Bizarrely, it still has the power to induce more than a touch of guilt too, as though we really ought to be slogging away doing something. Isn't the human psyche strange?) But guilt or no guilt, we decided to head off to Luchon, in the far south of the French Pyrénées just a few kilometres from the Spanish border, and just over an hour and a half (on the twiddly route) from Grillou.

Luchon is a kind of reinvented spa town; if you've ever visited a 'traditional' thermal resort here you'll know that they're not exactly renowned for their - er - dynamism. Whilst still heaving with curistes in season, Luchon promotes itself as a centre for walking and snow sports as well and so attracts a livelier sort of crowd than just the dressing gown and slippers brigade. In fact it has a strangely metropolitan vibe for these parts, with people gathering at the cafés at apéro time, and in particular on Sunday morning, to drink wine and coffee, read the papers, do the crossword and watch everyone else doing the same thing. A bit Toulouse-meets-Harrogate, with which it's twinned. We loved it. Part old mountain village, complete with narrow streets, steep rooves and wooden balconies; part Belle Epoque spa town, very elegant with tree and café-lined allées for endless promenades, parks and sumptous villas.

In true Slow Weekend style, we spent a decent amount of time just hanging out (drinking wine and coffee, blah blah blah), aided and abetted by the Foire de Toussaint which took over the town on Saturday during which we were, amongst other things, force-fed endless (and free) morsels of locally produced beef and lamb (and wine, of course) with no hint of a sales pitch, or even anyone to buy from. In fact I was struck by the overall generosity of the place, unusual perhaps for somewhere so dependent on tourism. Just remember, should you go there and should you dine there (and you will), to order much less than you think you can eat, otherwise you'll end up like me staggering womanfully round the town until midnight on Friday after an extraordinary dinner of potiron soup, omelette aux girolles, organic trout from Lac Oô with almonds and seventeen thousand vegetables, including the best chips I've ever eaten (cooked in duck fat, apparently) and a crème caramel with a hint of wintergreen. Oh yes, and it cost 15 euros, at the little one star Logis de France we stayed at, Les Deux Nations, that's been run by the same family since 1917.

When we weren't eating or drinking or people-watching, we:
Had a quick trip to the Val d'Aran over the Spanish border to (a) stock up with manzanilla, which I can't do without and (b) see what it was like (over developed and overpriced in parts, on the to-be-explored list in others);

Walked, most memorably from the 1700 metre high Port de Bales above the Vallée d'Oueil where we stumbled on the most fantastic 360 degree views, including the Maladeta massif, the highest part of the Pyrénées where there are still (but only just as the climate changes) four glaciers and Aneto rises to over 3400 metres.

Watched a group of around forty griffon vultures wheeling overhead; had an eyeball to eyeball encounter with an alpine chough; saw two flocks of snow finches, several alpine accentors and two golden eagles: all birds that people travel for miles and for years to see ... and there they were.

Had our breath taken away, not for the first time, by the clarity of the light and the autumn colours.

Sometimes I just have to pinch myself and tell myself that I really live here.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Interesting things to do with bread rolls

Just when you thought that there couldn't possibly be any more to say about the financial crisis, there was.

Last night I watched a documentary on Arte about the events of the last month, which was followed by the inevitable panel discussion: two French and two German economists slugging it out to see who could be most right. "S o o o o ...." began the (German) presenter, "What can you say about why this crisis has come to be?".

"Well, it's like this" explained one of the German economists. "When we were adolescents, we used to put petit pains down our swimming trunks to impress the girls. Our financial institutions have had their trunks full of bread rolls for a long time, but now the investors have pulled them down ..."

So now you know. And I'll never look at a German on the beach in quite the same way again.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Meanwhile, back at the ranch ...

... life goes on. Markets might be chaotic, recession predicted and pronounced throughout the western world, but still the veg grows, floors need to be tiled, leaves need to be raked, seeds need to be sown, walls need to be knocked down, and difficult decisions need to be taken.

One of the reasons we fell for Grillou was its trees; we're both archetypal treehugging types, and a decade of tree-sparse North Norfolk plus half a year in deforested Aude had left its mark. So it's particularly hard to find ourselves now in the role of executioner. But nevertheless, starting next week out will come the chainsaw and down will come several ancient plum trees (actually little more than a collection of lichen held up by some rotting bark. The blossom was pretty though), half a dozen or more young ash trees, a big old sprawling walnut that keeps on doing its best to sprawl into the salon, six light-eating leylandii (enough said) and - most difficult of all - four beautiful maple trees.

I'm not good at dealing with damage and destruction. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement: I'm almost neurotically unable to deal with it. If I break something accidentally I'm unconsolable; if someone else does it I'm apoplectic. When my ex-partner once sat on and broke the much-loved pink sunglasses that I'd left on the driver's seat when we were staying overnight in Beaumont sur Sarthe (see how I remember the finest detail? I'm ashamed to admit that I can even tell you what we'd eaten the night before ...), I stomped off so far that it took him hours to find me and we nearly missed the ferry. For heaven's sake, even knocking out a wall or an old kitchen is traumatic. So you can begin to imagine how angst-ridden has been the decision to cut down our trees.

The maples act like a line of defence against all comers, sitting as they do along much of the west-facing front of the house, right outside the main front door. The walnut does the same at the south end, along with a lovely old ash tree that has been spared but is up for radical beheading next week. The plum trees defend the east face. While the maples remain, energy will stay stuck, and while we might issue an invitation to be here, Grillou won't. So go they must. And in the process a lot more light will reach the house, so that this rather dark and dingy corner...

will turn into something more like this (without the ridiculously big maples on the left) ...

For any other tree lovers out there, here's a glimpse of three of our favourites: the willow, that stands guard over its own bit of garden and the 'hot' potager:

and two of our centenary oaks, much loved by all our birds but especially favoured by the black woodpecker:

So let the destruction commence. But best keep away from me for a while though. Especially if I've got the chainsaw in my hand ...

Monday, 13 October 2008

So tell me - am I a Luddite?

So the renovation funds are safe, apparently. Thank you, Mr Darling. My view of life, the universe and everything, however, has not remained similarly unscathed.

Sometime in the last ten or so years the world as I knew it - or at least thought I knew it - appears to have changed without my really noticing. Call me sheltered and hopelessly naive if you like, but it's taken the extraordinary and cataclysmic (add your own superlative) events of the last week to really bring home to me the way in which The Market Rules Okay and the extent to which so much of western life has been underpinned by credit, credit and more credit. When the markets no longer have faith in the institutions and the system that they themselves have created; when the supply of credit funding that we once believed to be bottomless is suddenly no more; when governments all over the world have to sit and watch as traders swiftly and systematically reduce the value of commodities and institutions to a pittance; when all of those things happen at the same time, as they did last week, the once revered political and economic theories that created them reveal themselves to be no more than a house of cards. When they collapse, they take down more than a few banks and big companies. They take down with them our sense of safety in living in the world, for nothing is as we believed it to be, and therefore nothing is to be trusted.

Here's an example. I read an article by Seth Freedman on Guardian Online last week arguing that savers don't deserve to have their savings protected. "Anyone entering into a contract with their bank, in which they loan the bank money in return for interest paid" he wrote, "should do so in the full knowledge that there is no guarantee they will see their money again – an entirely fair and proper situation, as in any other free market financial undertaking". I'm sorry, but what????? Is this really how I'm supposed to be thinking these days? I'm not making an investment, in which case I'd be told by innumerable wealth warnings about how the value can go down as well as up. I'm depositing my savings, for which I've worked bloody hard, into a bank who agrees to pay me a reasonable but certainly not startling return for the privilege of being able to use or invest it themselves for a while. But rightly or wrongly I do so in the expectation of being able to have it back when I choose. That's the deal.

Tell me, am I the only one who still thinks this way? A financial Luddite perhaps? A hopeless idealistic liberal who for many years has banked and saved and insured with mutually or co-operatively owned companies? (Except Icesave of course ...). Who doesn't change her mobile phone every six months or borrow money to buy the latest clothes or expect to have 'it' (whatever it may be) just because she wants it? Who sees nothing wrong with some appropriate regulation and doesn't believe that because the market has dictated it, it must be right? Who finds the kind of bonus regularly paid out in the financial world not only outrageous but downright immoral?

Yes, I'm angry, because I'd failed to see how low we'd collectively sunk; and yes, I'm sad, that I and countless others had to find out the incredibly painful way that was last week, and may yet be this one too. The question is, dare I also be hopeful that things will never be the same again?

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

So long and thanks for all the fish

When I sat down at the computer this morning I was going to write about the gorgeous sunny weather and the vegetable garden throwing goodies at us and the fig festival at Le Mas d'Azil and how (oh joy) the four month old electric tile cutter broke down with just two cuts to go. But then the day turned a little less good, because a friend in the UK emailed me to tell me that the merde in Iceland has not only hit the fan but in the process has been spattered a thousand miles southwards, towards him, and me, and possibly you.

I've been following the Icelandic financial crisis since the weekend, partly because it's such a microcosm of the bust bit of boom and bust capitalism that's currently bringing the world as we know it to its knees, and partly because it's a country I've always somehow felt connected to since I spent several weeks there in the seventies. Things were very different then: there was barely an 'economy', fishing and farming being the orders of the day for most people, foreign visitors were a rarity and Icelanders looked inwards rather than outwards. It was certainly one of the most welcoming places I've ever been: we were backpacking but spent very few nights in our tent and rarely had to cook for ourselves - mostly we were invited to peoples' homes on a whim as we walked on the roads and paths. And there was no TV on Thursdays, or in July. But the last 10 years or so brought this tiny country, with a population the size of Coventry, into the super league as deregulation and fish quota cash allowed it to ride the crest of the credit boom and build the highest per capita wealth in the world.

And now? A currency losing nearly half its value over the last year; inflation at 14%; interest rates at 15.5%; people drawing out money from what remains of the country's banking system up to their overdraft limits and stashing it under the bed because they fear there won't be any money left; a serious chance that the country itself will be bankrupt before the week's out ... And (closer to home; this is the bit that hurts) this morning Landsbanki has pulled the plug on its UK based internet savings arm, Icesave, freezing (no pun intended) all withdrawals and guaranteeing UK savings only up to the legal minimum of around £16,000 while maintaining business as normal in Iceland and protecting domestic deposits 100%. Even that guarantee, of course, is useless if the country goes belly up, but it feels at this point (and I hope I'm wrong, I really do) that UK savers have been sold down the river in the interests of Icelandic ones.

And here's the bit that's going to make it difficult for me to sleep for a while. The Grillou renovation fund is - was? - stashed in Icesave. After much Libran agonising I decided to leave it in the UK, where interest rates were much better than in the Eurozone, until it was needed for the first payments to artisans late this year (er - that would be in a couple of months ...). Yes, I'm aware that that'll teach me to act like a capitalist pig, but honestly, what would you have done? Word is that Landsbanki will be declared insolvent at any point now, meaning that I (and some 349,999 others, apparently) will have to salvage what we can from the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and sing for the rest.

There comes a time when even I don't know what to say next.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Living a 'both-and' life

Yesterday was a real chilly, wet autumnal day - the kind of day when all you really want to do is to stretch out on the sofa in front of the wood burning stove with a good book. Given that we don't yet possess either a sofa or a stove that was not an option. So I tiled the floor instead (yes, that floor), and ruminated on life and some of the strange turns mine has taken. It's not something I do all the time, but the previous day a friend had asked me how we had come to be running a restaurant and how we came to be here, and as I was trowelling the tile adhesive onto the floor my train of thought meandered on, as thoughts do, from there.

As you probably know, I was something of a late convert to life at the stoves. Ten years ago, after nearly half a lifetime of doing Socially Useful Things - civil servant, welfare rights activist, CAB manager, advocacy campaigner - I made my move towards the somewhat more laid back world of Slow. It wasn't by any means my first break-out: the early eighties had seen me quitting the hallowed halls of the Department of Health to run a vegetarian retreat centre and guest house in North Yorkshire. Whilst being great fun, it didn't pay the bills (too idealistic ... too cheap!), so all too soon it was back to the rat race for a while until the pull of freedom got the better of me again and I set off to spend a couple of years 'on the road', living in community in west Wales and Dorset, and helping to facilitate dance retreats and camps. Then it was the turn of my more serious side again: I was accepted on to the (then) new person-centred post-grad diploma in Norwich, where I stayed as a practising therapist until the Cley years ...

What somehow came into sharper than usual focus yesterday was how I had been swinging manically between head-down all-out ultra serious work mode (and I was - am - seriously serious about what I did) and live-lightly drop-out mode. Sated with one way of being after a few years, I'd go back to the other, only to find that part of me still wasn't getting what it wanted. Because at heart - and here's the rub - I'm a 'both-and' type of person, not an 'either-or' one. For instance, whereas many of my friends are (reputedly) happy with being either lifelong career professionals or downshifting simple-lifers, I'm not. I'm both, at the same time. In the same way, I enjoy writing both serious and frivolous posts in this blog. I love good wine; I can also rave about a 1.89€ Cité de Carcassonne bargain from Leader Price. I love silence, and a raucous rock concert makes me happy. I bask in the stillness of Grillou, and I love the buzz of Toulouse. And so on. Running alongside all of that are my intense curiosity about life and seemingly endless quest for lived experience, both of which have taken (and, I hope, will continue to take) me into some places in my life, both real and metaphorical, that are probably best left unelaborated. Though many may disagree, I couldn't imagine being a person-centred therapist, or indeed a person, without either of those things.

So why am I here? Partly because living in France is something that I've wanted to experience for a very long time. Partly to find, at last, the space and a way to live a 'both-and' life. And partly to explore the whole idea of living Slow: that doesn't mean doing everything at a snail's pace, but living a simple, meaningful, sustainable, mindful and pleasurable life, in the present, in a way that honours the bizarre complexity that is me.

Maybe I should tile floors more often.

Friday, 26 September 2008

A salutary tale ... part 2

I'm going to invent a new Slow Holiday. It's called Slow Glue Scraping. Very therapeutic.

Yes, we're still doing it.

Monday, 22 September 2008

A salutary tale ...

... of how if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Back in spring, our local M. Bricolage (DIY warehouse - Grillou's second home) was running a promo on seagrass carpeting - 5.99€ a metre length. Now we've got some upstairs in our little TV / music salon, and apart from being an absolute pig to haul up our twisty stairs (mutual murder was a distinct possibility for a while) and then cut, it went down well enough and looks great. So, brilliant, we thought - just the thing to cover up the white tiles in the lower half of our salon proper that make it look like a public toilet. We bought some, along with several rolls of cork insulation and some Neoprene glue to hold it all down. The statutory week to let it settle, a few more blisters, et voilà ... down, fitted and looking good. Oh, we thought we'd been so seriously clever...

A few weeks ago, it grew a beard, overnight. A green beard. My favourite French brico forums were consulted; it was pronounced to be a form of mildew; not, apparently, uncommon. No big deal - a squirt of dilute bleach, a rub down with a brush and then a hoover should deal with it. And so it did.

A week or so after that, I noticed a strange smell in the room. Our carpet, though still clean shaven, was reeking - not the normal seagrassy smell, which is quite pleasant. No, this was something else again. A squirt of slightly less dilute bleach, a rub down with a brush and a hoover, and it was gone. Except it wasn't. It came back again. Now the salon smelt like a public toilet instead of looking like one. Out came the bleach bottle again, etcetera.

Now I don't like being defeated. I like going forwards, not backwards. So I tried the old bicarb trick. Sprinkle bicarbonate of soda over smelly carpet, leave it for 48 hours, hoover and end of smell. In mitigation, I do have to say that it always worked for the smell of wet dog. It didn't, however, work for smelly seagrass.

Please read the next sentence carefully, because you may never read it again. I was defeated. I gave up. Beaten by a bit of fibre. One of my 'virtual' forum pals reckoned that it was always going to happen, because the seagrass had almost certainly been incorrectly dried and stored and was reacting with its latex backing (the words 'Greeks' and' gifts' spring to mind somewhere ...). So, yesterday, John - not me; there is a limit to my acceptance of defeat, as there is to my ability to tolerate destruction - cut it up and threw it out. It's currently acting as a ground cover mulch on a new bed in the potager, but the smell is now so strong that I fear it's taking over the village, 3km away, and tomorrow it's going to have to go to the déchetterie. In spite of the fact that its presence there will not further endear us to the rather fierce déchetterie attendant, who already has us marked down as beyond the pale because we omitted to sweep up after ourselves on our first visit.

And today we spent many hours trying to remove the Neoprene glue from the tiles, because yes, the glue smells too. Have you ever tried to remove Neoprene glue from tiles? No, I thought not. I expect we'll be doing the same tomorrow. And the day after.

Oh how we laughed.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Farewell to summer

Unlike the last couple of years, when wall-to-wall sun and warm temperatures in Ariège have lasted pretty much through to November (I swam in Lac Mondély in October last year), Metéo France's prognosis for this autumn is - well, autumnal. So when we spotted a miniature grey-free gap last week, we threw the tent into the car and within an hour were gone, this time towards Banyuls sur Mer in Roussillon for a couple of days coastal walking.

Banyuls is an old wine town just 12 kilometres from the Spanish border, where the last vestiges of the Pyrénées meet the Mediterranean. It has great character, a kind of faded elegance and a very cheap municipal campsite! I'd hate to be there in August, but outside la belle saison it's a charming place - laid back but still very much alive, unlike some of the big purpose built resorts where the shutters go down on the first day of September. People go there to taste and buy wine, to eat fish, to swim and snorkel, to walk the coast path that winds its way in and out and up and down amongst the criques and most of all, it seems, just to stroll around, watching everyone else do the same thing. We did all of those things, and managed to fit in a trip to Cadaqués as well.


Cadaqués was once a small shabbyish fishing village in a setting of spectacular natural beauty on the Costa Brava, close to the Cap de Creus; it was immortalised by Salvador Dalí, who had a house there, and during the 60s and 70s became a remarkable arty-hippy hangout where happenings happened. Until, that is, it got discovered by Barcelona's beautiful people, and Americans, and became chic. Cadaqués is undeniably attractive, but to be honest I found it to be just a teensy bit up itself and I would, I think, have much preferred it in its shabby-but-not-chic days. It's also the only place I've ever been where you're required by municipal decree to pay for parking by the minute (it's 0.03567 euros per minute or part thereof. I'm not kidding). We didn't though, because I'm mean and because I have a fully functioning built-in rip-off detector; instead we found a dingy kind of disused wide alleyway thing that was full of old French cars and the kind of travellers' vans that have tipi poles on the top, so we parked there. For free. And in a back street restaurant that was heaving with local workers and French visitors, we managed to find some affordable salad and sardines, along with a lively debate about the sorry state of the Parti Socialiste with a couple from the Auvergne. So all was not lost.

Being a lover of simple things, though, perhaps the best bit of the trip for me was on Cap Béar, close to Banyuls, watching a Bonelli's Eagle circling and hovering on the air currents for almost an hour - a truly lovely sight. The same night, a storm of mammoth proportions regaled us with almost continuous thunder and lightning for over four hours; in its wake rose the tramontane. The tramontane is the local wind, the Languedoc version of the Mistral, which erupts every so often and gusts at anything up to 90 km an hour, usually for at least four days. It's not pleasant, and is said to drive the locals mad. Which makes daily life, not to mention camping, a constant battle and is one reason why we chose not to live there. So with some sadness (and not a little hilarity, given the manic-ness of the wind) we packed up and came home.

Looking south from Cap Béar

And arrived back here to a different season. There are fallen leaves everywhere, there's snow on Mont Valier and the evenings seem shorter, somehow. Last night we drew the curtains for the first time since March.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Very Bizarre Things

Now here's a Very Strange Thing.

A couple of months ago, ever hopeful that one day in my current lifetime we might just be ready to open for guests, I registered the domain name Haven't done anything with it yet mind you - it's sitting there waiting to see some action. (As indeed is our future guest acccommodation. But we won't go there just now).

One night in August, when it was just too hot to go to bed, I was idly googling Slow and Slow Holidays. Other Slow Holiday sites are strangely almost non-existent, but I came across one site called 'A slow holiday in the Auvergne'. Bizarrely, it had an almost identical domain name: But even more bizarrely, as I discovered when I went to have a look, it refers to a gîte in a renovated corps de ferme owned and run by another two north Norfolk escapees, Andrée and Gary Lloyd, who moved at around the same time as we did. And more bizarrely still, they're people that we knew, albeit vaguely, because they owned Norfolk's iconic cook shop Head Cook and Bottlewasher, in North Walsham, which we (along with just about every cook in north Norfolk) used to zoom along to whenever we were in dire need of something esoteric for the restaurant kitchen. If you couldn't get it there, you couldn't get it anywhere; even if you didn't need anything, you'd come away with some find or other that would quickly become completely indispensable, like Exopat baking sheets. In fact I blame Andrée unreservedly for the ridiculously overflowing contents of my kitchen drawers.

Maybe it's not so strange after all. Norfolk was pretty big on Slow - at the point that we left, the number of Slow Food members was growing hugely, and Aylsham was one of only two Cittàslows in England; since then Diss, also in Norfolk, has become the third English Cittàslow. At the same time, the restaurant and hospitality world was changing fast. We called it the Starbucks Effect: an increasing number of customers were becoming innoculated with the big-chain virus so that they no longer knew quite how to deal with small, quirky one-off businesses like ours. "But why aren't you open all day?" they'd screech through our closed door at 11am, "I want a tall skinny vanilla latte and I want it NOW and there's nowhere to get one and it's just APPALLING ...". Or they'd shake their heads in utter bemusement at the fact that we chose to close on Monday each week, even Bank Holidays. Or that we didn't cram more people in. Or have two sittings ("But you could make SO MUCH MONEY!"). Or that we chose to do things differently, not big-business-ly. It may or not be a coincidence that a number of small business people that we knew, or knew of, were also making the decision to move on at around the time that we did.

Anyway, at some point in the future we hope to collaborate with Andrée and Gary in offering two centre Slow Holidays. In the meantime, if you fancy a whizz - sorry, trundle - down to Puy de Dôme in the Auvergne, check them out here.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

We have aubergines ...

... and yes, there is a goddess. After the tomato tragedy, it's just brilliant to be able to pick our first aubergines; I tried to grow them once in north Norfolk - the plants grew leaves well enough, but when they realised I wanted fruit as well they just laughed at me, and promptly died.

Actually, I have a bit of a love hate relationship with aubergines. When they're well cooked, they're sublime - the very best aubergine dish I ever ate was in Akyaka in south-west Turkey, in a restaurant called The Golden Roof. It was so simple - a version of Imam Bayeldi - but the dish was so full of flavour and melted so gloriously in your mouth that it was quite impossible to eat it with your eyes open. In fact I can quite see why the imam fainted. On the other hand, there can be little more disgusting than an improperly cooked aubergine. I have a friend whose aubergine dishes - in particular her baked aubergine - fill me with dread and an impending sense of doom as they appear onto the table and I realise that once again I'm going to have to munch my way through something that manages to be both slimy and crunchy at the same time. (I suspect that if the imam were eating with us he'd faint again, though this time for wholly other reasons ...).

Anyway, when I've had my fill of grilling my very own aubergines on the plancha, it'll be this aubergine ragù that I'll be making next. In one form or another it was always one of the most popular dishes at our restaurant, converting many an aubergine-sceptic in the process (it's amazing what a no-choice menu can do). Here it is:

Aubergine ragù

For every two people you'll need:

one medium sized aubergine
one onion and 2 cloves of garlic, chopped
a few springs of thyme
a couple of teaspoons each of cumin and fennel seeds
a couple of teaspoons of ground coriander seeds
3 or 4 peperoncini (small red chillies), finely chopped or ground, or better still, some Turkish pepper flakes if you can get hold of them
5 or 6 fresh tomatoes, chopped small (or a tin of chopped tomatoes)
2 teaspoons of tomato purée - sun-dried tomato purée is especially good
a large glass of decent red wine (and another one to drink while you cook!)
a pinch of saffron threads

This is a really easy thing to cook and is invariably delicious, with one proviso - that you don't rush it. You want to extract maximum flavour from every single ingredient, so s-l-o-w is the word. Really push those onions; wait till those aubergines are golden; let the sauce reduce properly. No corner cutting.

Grind the saffron threads in a pestle and mortar and add a little warm water; it will infuse while you prep the rest. Chop the aubergine into smallish dice, coat it in olive oil, then either roast it in a medium hot oven until it's golden (about 15 minutes), or pan fry it. Aubergine soaks up oil like nobody's business, but don't be tempted to keep on adding more - after a little while it will give it all back up again and all will be well. Meanwhile cook the onions, with the thyme leaves, for ten minutes or so in a little olive oil, add the garlic and cook for two or three minutes then turn up the heat and add the spices (not the saffron) and cook for yet another couple of minutes. Add the tomatoes, red wine and tomato purée, boil for a minute or so to burn off the alcohol then let the sauce simmer for an hour, slowly, until it's thickened and reduced by two thirds. Add the aubergine and cook gently for another twenty minutes or more to blend the flavours. Finally, add the saffron infusion and cook for just another two minutes.

The result is an intriguing, Moorish-ish, Turkish-ish blend of eastern and western flavours, though if you don't fancy that you can vary the seasonings however you like. I especially like this with farinata, a divine Ligurian flatbread made with chick pea flour and water and baked at a scarily high temperature; you could serve it with pasta, or rice, or just about anything. And it keeps incredibly well - in fact it's better the next day, and even better the day after that.

Serve it to your right-on veggie friends and they'll kiss your feet. Serve it to dyed in-the-wool carnivores and they won't turn a hair (but for heaven's sake don't tell them their dinner was vegan ...).

Monday, 1 September 2008

Slow Walking on the Plateau de Beille

We've just spent a couple of days camping and walking in Haut Ariège, on the Plateau de Beille and in the Haute Vallée d'Aston nearby. And very lovely it was too.

Although it's only just over an hour from home, this part of Ariège is so different from our 'end' that it feels as though you've travelled a lot farther. With a few exceptions, such as the valleys of Vicdessos and Oriège, most of the habitation is centred around the Ariège river, which runs from its source high in the mountains close to Andorra northwards towards Tarascon, Foix and eventually joins the Garonne 164 kilometres later. South of Tarascon, the valley sides are so steep that the houses and farms cluster close to the river; unlike the west of Ariège, where farmhouses and granges dot the slightly more gentle and greener slopes surrounded by large swathes of land, in Haut Ariège people live much closer together. We spent not a little time fruitlessly househunting in this part of the department before it dawned on us that the terrain simply didn't offer the kind of house that we wanted. The N20, the road to Andorra, runs parallel to the river, and - how can I put this? - it ain't quiet. On an average weekend it feels as though all of Toulouse and half of Tarn et Garonne are en route to Andorra to fill up with cheap pastis and cigs. In fact they probably are.

For all that, it's a spectacular area, and once you leave the N20 behind is as silent as you could wish for. The Plateau de Beille is a high altitude plateau, better known for being the Pyrénées' most important cross country skiing area and a frequent stage finish for the Tour de France. Now I'm not a skier, and haven't been one since a memorable school skiing trip during which I entered into the kind of relationship with a T-bar that's really best not described. But the walking is great. You can drive up to the ski station, which means it's one of the few walking areas where you can start walking at an altitude of 1800 metres. We're Slow Walkers, not peak baggers; we’re not interested in how fast we can cover a path, how much height we can gain or how many kilometres we can walk, nor are we up for scary scrambles, precarious footholds or anything that needs crampons. Slow Walking is about taking time to be in and contemplate our surroundings with all our senses; to stand and stare just as often as we want to; and to enjoy the simplicity of walking without the need for challenging goals. So the Plateau is our kind of high altitude walking: no ropes, no vertigo, no scree, but still enough ascent and descent to feel that you've had a decent workout, plus 360 degree views of lots of the big peaks in France, Spain and Andorra. There was one point where we could see both Canigou and Mont Valier, which if you know your Pyrénéan geography you'll realise is quite remarkable.

On the second day we walked in the Haut Valléé d'Aston, where so many flowers were still out that it almost felt like spring.

We gathered bilberries and wild raspberries, spent over half an hour watching a golden eagle circling then perching in a tree not far above us, walked through clouds of butterflies, and I spotted my first ever Black Wheatear.

The sun shone, the cow bells on the estives (high summer pastures) rang loud, I came across the most beautiful beech tree, and the river soothed our hot feet. Am I making you envious? Good.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

It's not easy being green. Etcetera. Etcetera.

Well, it isn't. And sometimes it makes you want to cry. Like yesterday, for instance, when we had to hoick out all twenty tomato plants because of late blight.

It was a bit like déja vu. We'd already had a serious attack of tomato blight in June (aka monsoon season), and in retrospect probably should have pulled up all of those plants and burnt them well before we did. But we didn't: we tried to save them. But we didn't: in the end they had to go. In went the next lot of tomato plants, in another bed. They thrived; it was a joy to watch them every day. True, some of them showed the occasional small brown patch, which we quietly removed. As all the other local organic growers do here, we gave them a treatment of Bordeaux mixture. Tomatoes started to form; we held our breath. So far, so good. Until last week, a couple of days of which were cool and a bit damp; we went to bed one night with healthy plants, and woke twelve hours later to four rows of sad horrible brown wilted scabby things. It was that fast.

If we discount my original theory that the Saints de Glace are having a laugh at my expense, I'm baffled. Our land hasn't grown vegetables for nearly 30 years. We don't grow potatoes. Our neighbours haven't got blight. We raised the plants from seed. So why? Yes, I realise it's probably not A Really Big Issue in the overall scheme of things, but it's pretty devastating when it happens. And we're going to have to think hard about how to deal with it next year.

There's an approach to growing practised here in France, originally just in viticulture but now more widely in agriculture, called 'lutte raisonée' - literally, 'reasoned struggle'. It's not organic, exactly, but those who practise it will only use any form of pesticide or fungicide treatment as an absolute last resort, having weighed up the environmental impact of treating against the overall impact of not treating. So no spraying 'just in case', and if the decision is made to treat, it will be because it's necessary to save an entire crop, and it will be done in such a way as to minimise damage to the soil and to beneficial insects. Almost all of the top wine domaines practise lutte raisonée, and I can see why. To me, sustainability has to be holistic, which means taking into account the personal and financial impact of an action as well as its impact on the Environment with a big E.

For example (and deep greens, look away now), we occasionally use slug pellets. We do so not because we don't know about or haven't thought about other methods, or because we don't care. We do so because we live and grow, here at Grillou, in an environment which can sometimes be very challenging indeed: in the middle of woodland with, in wet weather, more (and bigger) slugs and snails than I have ever seen in my life. Beer traps, eggshells, coffee grounds and all the rest simply don't cut it here: with half a hectare we can't afford nemotodes; I'm certainly not paying 30 euros for six copper rings (especially as we'd need at least 60 ...); and sorry, but staying up all night to pick the things off my plants is simply not an option. So if we're to produce any seedlings or any lettuce at all, pellets it is, sometimes.

Being green isn't the nice cuddly, fluffy little number it's often made out to be. It's about hard work, hard thinking and even harder choices. And it's not easy.